An educated consumer makes educated decisions.
This statement is the premise behind many of today’s customer education programs, and it explains why customer education initiatives have largely been assumed by marketing departments. It is not always the case, of course, but it’s common enough — especially in larger organizations with big marketing budgets — that it begs the question: Should customer education and marketing break up, or are these two disciplines meant to be in a life-long relationship, unified toward one common goal?
Going deeper, are they two separate disciplines, or is customer education a branch of marketing?
How Customer Education and Marketing Got Together
A decade ago, the term “customer education” was unknown. We spoke of extended enterprise or certification programs that were generally technical in nature. We developed help centers that included tutorials and product articles, and we held webinars that walked our customers through new releases or updated interfaces.
Concurrently, the marketing industry was evolving, and in the last five years or so, the shift to education-based marketing gained traction. Education-based marketing is a strategy that shifts the message from a persuasive sales focus to one that imparts knowledge and builds trust, establishing the organization as a thought leader and expert in the field.
This strategy makes sense, especially for organizations that paved the way in their field and need their prospective customers to have a baseline understanding before they can recognize the value of the company’s solutions. You’ll see no argument here that educated consumers make educated decisions.
So, if we agree that education-based marketing can be an effective marketing strategy, is there any harm if customer education is a marketing initiative? The short answer is “yes.” To explain why, we have to unravel the purpose of education and the intent of marketing.
It’s All in the Metrics
To begin, let’s explore marketing success metrics, which are largely based on engagement. Marketing key performance indicators (KPIs) may include website visitors, open rates, click rates, conversions, number of leads, website traffic and social media engagement. Some marketing departments also track event attendance and net promoter score (NPS).
It’s only natural, then, that the marketing teams that “own” a customer education program will assume the same measures of success. For example, they will track the relationship between course enrollment and a specific action, with the expectation is that an individual who engages with an educational item will be more likely to sign up for services or try out a new feature.
But that’s not the end of the story. There’s another distinct problem that occurs from this arrangement: Because the marketing department is so focused on engagement and conversion metrics, it develops its educational content specifically to meet those goals. Even if the content is informative, it is generally not written as educational content that builds proficiency through specific learning objectives. There tends to be content like passive videos that are informative but do not help build viewers’ competencies.
There also tends to be a lack of instructional design, true measures of assessment and quality learning experiences, because standard marketing metrics do not measure these qualities. In other words, if a marketing department offers a prospective customer an eye-catching and engaging video that explains a product or a multi-course eLearning path that builds competencies, it will see similar results or even better results from the first, since it was optimized to grab attention and spark a specific action.
Education Requires More Intention
Why should organizations invest in quality instructional design and emphasize the learning experience if they can achieve results with informational videos? To answer that question, we now need to talk about the purpose of education. Education is not the right solution when looking at one immediate metric, but it is the solution for long-term behavior change.
If you want prospective customers not just to take one immediate action (e.g., trying out a new product) but also to find long-term success with that product, education is the solution. If you want prospects not only to make one decision to sign up but also to have a foundational knowledge that will help them succeed and become an advocate for your company, education is the solution.
Remember, too, parallel to the marketing initiative is the old-school customer training: the initiatives that aim to help customers use the organization’s tools successfully. One of two things often happen with these parallel initiatives. Either they exist in silos and lead to redundancy, inefficiency, conflicting information and poor customer experience, or the marketing department’s larger budget assumes all customer education. When the latter happens, you’re likely to see a conflict of interest between the educators and the marketers, mismatched goals, and a watered-down learning experience.
Making the Case: Why Organizations Should Consider Education a Separate Discipline
So, what’s the solution? Marketing and customer education should break up, and education should be a standalone functional area that supports all of the organization’s educational goals — the long-term goals that promote customer retention, loyalty and advocacy.
There’s a marketing benefit to this approach as well. Educated customers make educated decisions, but we need to look beyond those immediate decisions and consider the longer-term benefits education provides. Education-based marketing is a great strategy, and marketing teams should own it. But it should not be confused with customer education. Marketing and customer education are both important, but they serve different purposes that they can only realize when separated and allowed to reach their respective goals.
In other words, marketing and customer education are much better off as friends.